Charlotte’s Amazing House of Treasures

The Gründerzeitmuseum, tucked away in Mahlsdorf on the eastern edge of Berlin, is home to a unique collection of furniture, antiques and curios. Its name literally means ‘museum of the founders’ epoch’, referring to Wilhemine Germany, the period from 1871 until 1900 following Germany’s unification under Kaiser Wilhelm I and when Germany’s industrial revolution had just taken off. For anyone interested in an authentic experience of the domestic life of the middle classes during these years, this is the perfect museum visit – with the bonus of an incredible background story.

The Gutshaus Mahlsdorf – home of the Gründerzeitmuseum

The collection is housed in a restored country manor house dating back to 1815 and displayed in a series of authentic interiors containing countless fascinating objects. But the story behind this museum is as fascinating as its contents and needs to be told first. It was the brainchild of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transgender woman born as Lothar Berfelde in 1928 in Berlin-Mahlsdorf. As a boy she suffered terribly at the hands of her violent father Max, a Nazi who wanted to make a soldier out of his son. She sought shelter and security with her great-uncle Josef Brauner, car pioneer at Daimler-Benz, and fell in love with the culture of his era. As an adolescent she then adopted the identity of ‘Lottchen’ and found her feminine nature embodied in the ideal of a servant girl around 1900.

During the war, Max forced Charlotte to join the Hitler Youth and in 1941 she started helping a second-hand goods dealer to clear houses and apartments, often belonging deported Jews, and sometimes she kept items for herself. In 1944, her mother finally decided she had to leave and Charlotte’s father made her choose between her parents. He apparently threatened her with a gun, but she hit him with a rolling pin and killed him. In January 1945, a Berlin court sentenced Charlotte to four years in prison but in the chaos following the end of the war, she only served a few months. Charlotte continued her passion for collecting furniture and bric a brac in the ruins of post-war Berlin and her role in the gay and lesbian scene in East Berlin was documented in detail by Rosa von Praunheim in the film portrait ‘Ich bin meine eigene Frau’ (1992) (‘I am my own woman) and in the book by the same name by Peter Süβ (2004). During the GDR years she carried on living a transgender life and developed into an expert on antiques from the German Gründerzeit period.

A display of photos documenting Charlotte’s life

In 1958, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf took on the former Mahlsdorf manor house which was threatened with demolition and opened her museum there on 1 August 1960. In 1972, the building was added to the GDR’s list of monuments – although to keep in with the authorities Charlotte had to work as an informant for the Stasi. Just after reunification, a brutal attack by neo-Nazis at a spring festival in the museum grounds in 1991 made Charlotte decide that she would leave Germany. In 1992 she was awarded the Bundesverdienstkreuz (Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany). She continued to guide visitors through her collection until 1995 but in 1997 she moved to Porla Brunn in Sweden, where she opened another Gründerzeitmuseum with half the collection. She died in 2002 during a visit to Berlin and is buried in Mahlsdorf cemetery under her birth name, next to her beloved mother and uncle.

Charlotte von Mahlsdorf’s grave

In 1997 the Förderverein Gutshaus Mahlsdorf (The Friends Association of the Mahsldorf Manor House) was founded, and the museum was reopened. The contents of the Swedish collection were brought back in 2011 and now the Gründerzeitmuseum is open to visitors on two days a week (Wednesdays and Sundays). The best way to see it is with a guided tour; these run throughout the day in German but can also be arranged in English in advance by emailing the museum. Our excellent guide was from Dresden and shared many fascinating details about the museum’s contents as well as demonstrating all the music machines on display.

The museum guide describing the pianola, before his demonstration

All the living rooms contain furniture and household effects belonging to the middle classes from the period between 1880 and 1900. The large garden room with steps down to the park is furnished as a so-called ‘good room’. High mirrors and ceiling chandeliers lend it the character of a banqueting hall and wedding ceremonies take place here.

The dining table can be cleverly extended to seat large numbers
The dining table can be cleverly extended to seat large numbers

The Gentlemen’s Room and the neo-Gothic Dining Room came from the estate of a wealthy Berlin merchant. This furniture was made by master carpenter Groschkus. Other furnishings include pictures, a desk with accessories, a grandfather clock and a cast-iron stove.

The gentlemen’s reception room

Except for the neo-Gothic dining room (made in Berlin around 1900), most of the furniture in the museum is mainly in the neo-Renaissance style popular at that time and was already being mass produced in factories, The interiors are completed by cast-iron stoves, clocks and lamps, wall decorations and decorative art objects, many of which were by now factory-made. I particularly liked the red ‘salon’ with its plush furniture, sofa with spittoon, lady’s desk with fascinating accessories as well as arts and crafts objects.

View of the red sitting room

The red living room and study belonged to Charlotte’s great uncle, the automobile engineer Josef Brauner, whom she admired so much, and the green ladies’ salon was once located in ‘Aunt Luise’s’ East Prussian manor house. This woman, a lesbian who always dressed in men’s clothes, was a role model for Charlotte.

The green sitting room – with photo of ‘Aunt’ Luise in riding gear

The bedroom suite originally stood in the villa of a Leipzig architect couple.  It also contains a wash basin with shaving set, a children’s cot and some wonderful working toys of the period.

Bedroom with chamber pots and bed warming pans under the bed

There is also a smaller single bedroom where Charlotte’s own coat hangs on a wardrobe rail by the dressing table.

Ladies’ dressing table and Charlotte’s coat on the rail

In the basement of the museum is the completely preserved interior of the ‘Mulackritze’, an old Berlin pub at Mulackstrasse 15 in the historic Scheunenviertel of Berlin-Mitte. The original furnishings complete with serving bar from 1890, as well as the advertising and prohibition signs on the walls, the club room and the whorehouse at the back of the pub are a genuine piece of Berlin milieu from the end of the 19th century. Everything was rescued by Charlotte when the pub was demolished in 1963 and she brought it all to Mahlsdorf.

The original bar from the Mulackritze pub
The ‘whore room’ at the back of the Mulackritze with bed, bath and basic toilet

A special area of Charlotte’s collection is the various ‘music machines’ presented as part of the tour: these range from music boxes, phonographs and gramophones to self-playing pianolas and precursors of the Jukebox. They are a real highlight of this museum, especially as the tour guide gives a demonstration of all the musical exhibits.

The Polyphon – forerunner of the Jukebox

There are so many objects of interest in this museum collection that no visitor could fail to be impressed; the variety of furniture, fittings, machines and decorative articles is astonishing. Here are two more household inventions from that era that caught my eye.

A wall-mounted telephone by the gentleman's desk
A tobacco leaf cutting machine

Outside the manor house sits Charlotte’s red Mercedes-Benz acquired when she was 63 years old. She never learnt to drive but enjoyed riding in it and it was a strong connection with her Uncle Josef. In the trees behind it is a plaque in memory of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, founder of the Gründerzeitmuseum.

Charlotte's red Mercedes

I visited the museum in pouring rain in February and was unable to appreciate its setting – a beautiful park restored to the state it was in at the end of the 19th century. I will have to go back in the summer when the kitchen and washroom will hopefully be open again. The museum is a fairly long walk from Mahlsdorf S-Bahn Station, so I was pleased to find a taxi rank outside the station. The ride costs just over €6 euros each way and museum entrance is €4.50 – worth every cent. I am only sorry that I never managed to visit when Charlotte was still alive to guide me through her wonderful collection. She must have been an extraordinary person to withstand a violent father and negotiate her way through the years of Nazi Germany and Communist GDR to realise her dream of creating the largest Gründerzeit museum in the world.

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